Legendary around the world skipper Bouwe Bekking shares his tips for running an effective offshore watch system with Andy Rice

Bouwe Bekking has been around long enough to remember the ‘bad old days’ of non-stop hiking on the rail on a Mumm 36 while competing in the Admiral’s Cup. Life tends not to be quite so brutal for most crews these days, but there is still that ever-present dilemma of performance versus discomfort.

Watch systems are an important part of that equation, and there are a few variations worth experimenting with when you’re looking for that perfect compromise between finding top speed in the moment, and ensuring you have a well-rested crew further down the track.

Offshore it’s important to remember the old ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ cliché. Here are Bouwe’s five best tips for running an effective watch system to see you across the finish line in good shape.

Four on, four off

For the last Rolex Fastnet Race I did [in 2021 aboard VO70 I Love Poland], we were running a classic ‘four on, four off’ watch pattern. So we did a full swap of crew every four hours. I think that’s the easiest system to follow and understand.

The disadvantage on a longer trip means the same people are always having the morning watch and another group are always on the evening watch. So a variation is the old school method, where you had four hours during the night and six hours during the day.

But I think six hours in general is too long – it’s quite hard to maintain the intensity you need when you’re racing seriously, and people just get tired, especially the grinders. If it’s all automated that’s not a problem, but then people can actually get a little bit bored, crazy as that sounds. So that’s a factor to bear in mind too.


It’s important to get as much sleep as possible when off-watch

Two-hour changes

A good alternative to the four on, four off system is to swap in two new people every two hours. This solves the problem of having no continuity, where you have people coming up on deck still half asleep, and you’re changing everything all at once. All of a sudden you can see the performance dipping so in a race environment you try to get two new people up on deck every two hours.

Make tweaks

There are times when you need to adjust your watch system. For example when it’s really bad weather people start getting sick and they start getting tired. When you’re tired is when you start making mistakes, so anticipate the problem and speed up the watch rotation.

It’s also difficult to settle into a watch system after the start. If the race start is at 2pm, then very often everyone is up on deck until the sun sets. There could be a lot happening, like zigzagging out of a busy Solent at the start of the Fastnet, for example. It might be difficult to get settled into your watch pattern, but try to do it as early as possible.

Avoid the common problem of going too hard too soon. Preserve the crew’s energy whenever you can. This is particularly true for the youngsters, who seem to need more sleep. The older I’ve got, the less sleep I seem to need, but remember who else is on your crew, and give them the rest they need to be at their best.


Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel in the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/VOR

Use your off-watch

The most important thing when you go off watch is to use the heads. There’s nothing worse than getting into your bunk and getting all warm, and then feeling the need to pee an hour later. Make sure you strip off your waterproof gear straight away. Otherwise the sweat and humidity from working on deck condenses inside your gear and leaves you feeling cold an hour or two later. Even if it’s 20° downstairs, it’s still important to strip off, or the cold will sap your energy.

Some people like to put in earphones, which I’ve never done as skipper because I like to listen out for any sounds that might be a warning sign for something I need to pay attention to. But for most people I’d say do whatever will help you get off to sleep as quickly as possible, and if music helps, use it.

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Change positions

When you’re pushing for 100% performance from the boat it’s hard to be at the top of your game for more than an hour. Boredom or tiredness can set in, and you have to recognise when you’re reaching your limits of concentration.

I know when I’m starting to do a bad job. For example, I don’t like power reaching at 60° to 70° True because I can get bored. There are no waves to catch, the skill level is less important, so it’s good to give the helm to someone who’s really keen to drive. Conserve your energy for when the conditions are more demanding.

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